ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Steelers and the Green Bay Packers have been playing each other since Dan Rooney was 1, first on Oct. 15, 1933, and most recently in one of the greatest championship games ever, but it is Pittsburgh that awakes this Monday morning wondering whether it will take another 78 years to forget Super Bowl XLV.
Staked to an 18-point halftime lead thanks mostly to a wretched first half by Ben "Piano Man" Roethlisberger, the Packers hung on like a pit bull until Roethlisberger's typical deep pocket of miracles produced a late handful of only lint and regret.
Asked for his evaluation of the quarterback's performance, Mike Tomlin said flatly, "It was a losing one, just like mine."
The final three passes of this overachieving Steelers season all went to Mike Wallace, who had a great year but did not emerge as the answer to the hypothetical question, "Who will succeed Santonio Holmes as Pittsburgh's last-minute Super Bowl hero?"
In a postseason in which no Steelers wideout produced a 100-yard game, it was Hines Ward who lifted his team off the floor in the first half with his consistently reliable excellence, catching three passes on the final possession of the half. The third one was a twisting, leaping grab in the right corner of the end zone on a ball thrown over the wrong shoulder, an 8-yard reception for a touchdown that defibrillated the Steelers back to life and sent them to the locker room trailing, 21-10.
They trailed the Baltimore Ravens, 21-7, at the half to start these playoffs, but this Packers atmosphere wasn't as favorable somehow.
"We thought if we got a taste of a lead we could keep it in our mouths for a while," said Troy Polamalu. "We weren't able to get any turnovers on defense. They made plays on defense and we didn't. There were a couple of times when I could have made a play, but I was just a step off.
"It's incredibly humbling."
For Troy, breakfast is incredible humbling.
On the long list of Steelers errors and their authors, Polamalu's name was near the bottom. Inserting his at the top at the worst moment possible was special teams captain Keyaron Fox, who committed an idiotic unnecessary roughness penalty after Isaac Redman returned the game's final kickoff to the 26. Instead of starting there, Fox shoved his team back to the 13, from where Ben started with 1:59 to play, behind by six, with only one timeout remaining.
"You can't do that," Ward said directly. "We were goin' over our two-minute offense on the sideline and you think you're starting near the 30-yard line and you find out you're starting back there near the 10. We knew we had to play perfect ball today to have an opportunity to beat these guys."
Roethlisberger found Heath Miller by himself underneath the coverage for 15, then threw it to Ward for the final time, inexplicably enough. Then he started firing at Wallace.
"We were just running fire zone blitzes," said Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who used to do the same thing for the black and gold once upon a time. "Hopefully, you don't give Ben enough time to look around back there. We had to adapt in the second half as much as we ever have in this game. We had to adapt on the run."
The Packers lost stalwart pass defenders Charles Woodson and Sam Shields for large chunks of the game, but the Steelers couldn't exploit those losses to the extent necessary. The decision to ignore Ward in the final minute, particularly on third-and-5 and fourth-and-5, might sting for a while.
Ward not only dragged the offense off the deck, his 15-yard reception on a 66-yard fourth-quarter drive that pulled the Steelers within 28-25 helped set the stage for the scripted Ben heroics that never came.
"I thought it was going to be one of those magical moments," Ward said. "It's something we've done all year, but we just didn't finish. It's just disappointing, especially in a Super Bowl. You can't do the things we did on this stage, in this game."
While no one was really noticing, that 15-yarder moved No. 86 into the top five postseason receivers of all time in terms of yardage. Only Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Cliff Branch and Andre Reed have piled up more postseason yards than Ward.
But this eighth Steelers Super Bowl was a dreary textbook example of the yards too often trumped by turnovers, of course, and the fact that the Steelers outgained the Packers 387 yards to 338 turned out to be a one one-hundredth as meaningful as their three turnovers. Green Bay, doing what champions do, converted those turnovers into 21 points, and used the final one, a second-half fumble by Rashard Mendenhall, to wrest from the Steelers all the momentum in the massive building.
"I don't feel anything but pain," linebacker James Harrison said. "It's not who we are, this game, but each one of these guys is my brother and I mean that to the depths of my soul. I'm going back to the hotel and play with my son. He has 60-some uncles out here that are feeling the same way I am."
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published February 7, 2011 5:30 AM